BMCR 2006.12.33

The Ancient Near East: Historical Sources in Translation. Blackwell Sourcebooks in Ancient History

, The ancient Near East : historical sources in translation. Blackwell sourcebooks in ancient history. Malden: Blackwell Pub, 2006. xx, 445 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0631235809 $44.95.

Table of Contents

Mark W. Chavalas has gathered an excellent ensemble of scholars and doctoral candidates to edit and translate representative historical texts from the major cultures of the ancient Near East into English. The Ancient Near East: Historical Sources in Translation ( ANE) contains translations of historical texts produced in Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia and Palestine from the third to the first millennium B.C.E. The main geographic thrust of the work is towards the cuneiform world (Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia, and Hatti), but also includes Aramaic and some early Hebrew documents from Syria-Palestine. Noteworthy, and without explanation, is the omission of Egyptian historical texts. The book is aimed at providing undergraduate students with a collection of primary sources to supplement a historical textbook of the ancient Near East (p. 1). To this extent ANE has well achieved its intended purpose.

The book is divided into 13 chapters, primarily arranged by historical period and civilisation. The first three chapters are devoted to the inscriptions from the third millennium. Included are inscriptions from the Early Dynastic period from the main Sumerian cities; Old Akkadian period texts, including the legends of Sargon of Akkad and Naram-Sin; and the late third millennium Sumerian texts covering inscriptions from Lagash, the Ur III royal inscriptions and letters, the city ‘laments’, and the Sumerian King List. The next two chapters focus on the Old Babylonian period and feature texts from both the Isin-Larsa period and from the Old Babylonian period, as well as the letter corpora and a discussion of the period’s practice of the ‘year name’ dating system. Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight are concerned with second millennium sources and include inscriptions from the various centres of Syria and Mesopotamia, representative letters from the Amarna archive, and Hittite inscriptions. Chapters Ten and Eleven cover the Neo-Assyrian period, and in addition to the inscriptions from the major militant rulers, texts from Naqia/Zakutu, and Aramaic inscriptions from Syria-Palestine are covered. Chapter Twelve, “Neo-Babylonian Texts from Babylonia and Syro-Palestine,” contains texts from Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar II, Nabonidus, and ostraka from Samaria and Lachish. The final chapter, “Achaemenid Period Historical Texts Concerning Mesopotamia,” is restricted to the Neo-Babylonian chronicles and the Cyrus Cylinder. Chavalas has arranged the ancient texts in a chronological fashion (rather than by genre: royal inscriptions, letters, treaties, etc.) to facilitate the volume’s use in ancient history courses on the political history of the ancient Near East, over a 15-week period (p. 2). The beginning of each chapter contains a historical introduction by the respective translator; each text is accompanied by a lengthy commentary and short bibliography that draws the readers’ attention to some of the literary, historical, and in some cases, linguistic points of interest.

English speaking students have long had access to ancient Near Eastern documents in translation. However, ANE is not merely a reproduction of existing translations. Each text in ANE has been translated afresh to offer the reader the most up-to-date edition. For example, Morgan (p. 24) correctly translates the position of the mother of Sargon of Akkad as “high priestess” (Akkadian e-ni-tum), rather than the older translation “changeling”.1 Similarly Eva von Dassow is to be commended on her translations of the linguistically complex Amarna letters from Syria-Palestine. Previous works have facilitated undergraduate courses in ancient Near Eastern history.2 However, ANE stands apart from these works for a number of reasons.

The first is that ANE is not focussed on the Bible. Pritchard’s, Thomas’s, and Hallo and Younger’s volumes often abridge the extra-biblical texts to highlight the similarities between the corpus of Near Eastern texts and the Hebrew Bible. While the emphasis on the biblical text elucidates the significance of the ancient Near Eastern civilizations for students of biblical studies, such an arrangement has little benefit for students of the ancient Near East. The major drawback from this practice is that it creates an unrealistic expectation of cultural homogeny throughout the ancient Near East. Thus, with the interest being placed squarely on political history, the reader will encounter a different organisation and presentation of the ancient Near Eastern texts: the texts are organised chronologically, rather than by genre, and are for the most part, presented unabridged. Further, the historical focus of this volume means that more room has been given to historical documents than in works like Pritchard’s. However this means that many literary and religious texts found in the other editions of ancient Near Eastern sources are not included.

Another important contribution of the book are the historical introductions, textual notes, commentaries, and bibliographies for each section. These additions to the translations constitute a feature of ANE that sets it apart from other volumes of ancient Near Eastern documents. The textual criticism and historical discussions will go a long way to introduce the student and non-specialist to the nature and significance of the texts included in this volume. Examples of this are the discussion of the importance of royal titles in Mesopotamian historical writing (pp. 5-6); the various observations on the difficulty of translating Sumerian and Akkadian texts into English, well-illustrated by Studevent-Hickman’s presentation of two different translations of the letter from the time of Shar-kali-sharri (p. 21). Finally, but no less important, is the price. The paperback edition is far cheaper than The Context of Scripture three volume set and Pritchard’s ANET. ANE is within the economic reach of students and non-specialists—a rare treat.

However, ANE is not a replacement for the larger research editions of Near Eastern texts. Transliterations of the texts are not included and consequently ANE is limited for purposes of research. More advanced students should still consult the larger, critical research editions of ancient documents, such as the Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Project and the State Archives of Assyria volumes, while the works of J. A. Knudtzon, A. F. Rainey and W. L. Moran should be consulted for the Amarna corpus.3

While the reviewer believes that ANE will be helpful for students and non-specialists alike, there are a few problems with the organisation of the material included. One cannot help but feel that the volume has suffered greatly from the lack of an overall introduction. Chavalas is correct in stating that “It is essential for students of history to read primary sources” (p. 1). However, Chavalas does not define what he regards as a ‘historical’ document in his introduction, and the result is that there seems to be some inconsistency as to what is deemed historical from chapter to chapter. Chavalas does state that the emphasis is on documents that illuminate the history of the ancient Near East “from above” (p. 3), that is, from the viewpoint of the rulers. The discussion, however, does not develop beyond this point.

The contributors occasionally take up the job, but the discussion remains confined to periods covered by the respective chapters. Part of the problem is that Chavalas does not offer a discussion concerning matters of Near Eastern historiography. For instance, what did the ancients deem as historical? What kinds of history (political or other) can the modern scholar recreate from the ancient document? What genre of texts is of greater aid to the historian? And how can (and should) the individual genres be read against each other in the writing of history? These are not easy questions to answer, but the relative silence on these issues has clouded the textual selection process in this volume. This is most evident in the inclusion of the select literary sources and letter corpora. Chapters Two and Three include the literary texts about the Old Akkadian kings, Sargon and Naram-Sin, and the Ur III hymns and ‘laments’, while the literary texts concerned with the (legendary) king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, are omitted. Nor is any attention paid to literary works that deal with the ancients’ conception of prehistory, e.g., Enuma Elish.Yet the volume includes the Sumerian King List, which opens with the gods handing down kingship to humans in the antediluvian age. ANE does not present a clear picture on the relationship between epic and political history in the ancient Near East.

Further, the inclusion of letter corpora is sporadic. The letters from the Ur III period, Old Babylonian period and the Amarna period (pp. 77-80, 113-131, 186-210) are used to good effect, offering the reader an insight into the complexity of the regionalism of the late third to second millennium Mesopotamia, and the manifold nature of the Egyptian empire. However, the Neo-Assyrian letter corpus is not represented. The royal letters from the Neo-Assyrian period throw a different light on the nature of the Assyrian empire from the picture presented by the royal inscriptions. Further, texts from the so-called ‘crisis’ period of the Assyrian empire (823-745 B.C.E.) are not represented. Certainly any study of the Near East in the first millennium would investigate this period. While the absence might be the result of space and time constraints, the inclusion of the Pazarcik stele, the Antakya stele, the Saba’a stele, or the Tell al-Rimah stele from the reign of Adad-nirari III (810-783 B.C.E.) would offer the reader an insight into the Assyrian methods of administering the empire not available from the annals and ‘letters to god’.4 A summary of the editor’s views on such matters would clarify some of the aforementioned issues. Related to this is the fact that Chavalas has limited the material covered to the realm of political history. A side effect of this is that the book might not find its way onto reading lists for courses that investigate the social and religious aspects of the ancient Near East. The majority of history courses on the ancient Near East also investigate cultural and social issues. While the “history from below” is not the aim of this book (p. 3), lecturers will turn to ANE‘s predecessors to direct their students to appropriate sources.

There is also the occasional dated historical discussion. Since the aim of ANE is to present the reader with editions of the primary sources from the ancient Near East, and not a history of the region, the majority of these lapses are inevitable and do not warrant criticism. Indeed, the contributors are to be commended for their efforts in presenting historical issues, many of which are vexed, in a clear and concise manner. For example, Strawn’s treatment of the mysterious identity of Bar-Ga’yah in the treaty between KTK and Arpad (299-300); and Schmidt’s handling of the identities of the respective kings in the Tel Dan stele and the meaning of byt dwd (pp. 305-306). However, the reviewer would like to take this opportunity to comment on one of the more significant historical problems. Greenwood (p. 368) states that the Assyrian King List was created to legitimize Shamshi-Adad I’s rule over Ashur. This interpretation was first put forward by B. Landsberger and has since been widely accepted.5 However, Landsberger’s thesis has been called into question a number of times in recent scholarship and it is now clear that the evidence does not support the interpretation presented in this book.6

Finally, the reviewer has one minor quibble with the format of ANE : the presentation of the translations of the ancient texts in italics. One feels that this is an unnecessary practice, since it is the texts themselves that are the main focus of the work, and thus, should be presented in as clear a manner as possible. Perhaps the translations of the ancient texts could have been differentiated from the surrounding commentaries and notes by way of a different-sized font rather than italics.

All in all, Chavalas has edited a competent work that the reviewer is certain will be placed on the reading lists of Near Eastern history courses throughout the English speaking world. In particular, readers interested in Mesopotamian and Hittite political history of the first and second millennia B.C.E. will find much of use here. Students and non-specialists who are embarking on the study of the ancient Near East would do well to consult ANE for a quick reference to Near Eastern historical documents.


1. See Chicago Assyrian Dictionary 4 (E): pp. 172-173; and the edition in J. B. Pritchard (ed.), The Ancient Near Eastern: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958) p. 85.

2. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament: Third Edition with Supplement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969); D. W. Thomas (ed.), Documents from Old Testament Times, (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1958); B. R. Foster (ed.), Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 2nd ed., 2 volumes (Bethesda: CDL Press, 1996); W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger (eds.) The Context of Scripture: Volume I, Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World (Leiden: Brill, 1997), The Context of Scripture: Volume II, Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World (Leiden: Brill, 2000); and The Context of Scripture: Volume III, Archival Documents from the Biblical World (Leiden: Brill, 2002).

3. J. A. Knudtzon, Die El-Amarna Taflen, 2 vols. (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1907); A. F. Rainey, El Amarna Tablets 359-379: Supplement to J. A. Knudtzon, Die El-Amarna-Taflen, AOAT 8 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Butzon & Bercker Kevelaer, 1978); and W.L Moran, The Amarna Tablets (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

4. For editions of these inscriptions see A. K. Grayson, Assyrian Rulers of the Early First Millennium BC II (858-745 BC), RIMA 3 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996 [2002 reprint]), A.0.104.2-3, 6-7, pp. 203-205, 207-212.

5. B. Landsberger, “Assyrische königsliste und ‘Dunkles Zeitalter’, Journal of Cuneiform Studies 8 (1954) esp. 32-36.

6. W. W. Hallo, “Assyrian Historiography Revisited”, Eretz-Israel 14 (1978) 5*-6*; J. A. Brinkman, “Glassner’s Mesopotamian Chronicles”, Journal of the American Oriental Society (1995) 669-670; Wu Yuhong, “Did the Assyrian King List Attempt to Prove the Legitimacy of Shamshi-Adad I?”, Journal of Ancient Civilizations (1995) 25-37, J. J. Azize, “Who was Responsible for the Assyrian King List?”, Abr-Nahrain 35 (1998) 1-27; and L. R. Siddall, “The Genealogy of Adad-nirari III, the Identity of the Ila-kabkabis of the Assyrian king List and the Status of the ‘Legitimisation’ Hypothesis”, Orientalia [forthcoming].